Col. Herman G. "Hank" Tillman

Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was one of Maryland's most decorated veterans, died of liver failure at his Chester home. He was 89. (Baltimore Sun / February 20, 2012)

Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was one of Maryland's most decorated veterans, died Sunday of liver failure at his Chester home. He was 89.

He was born in his immigrant grandparents' Anne Arundel County farmhouse, and later moved with his family to a home at Pontiac Avenue and Sixth Street in Brooklyn.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1940, he attended the Johns Hopkins University at night and worked at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s engineering department during the day.

"As a kid, he was fascinated with flying. He was working for Baltimore Gas and Electric when the war broke out, and he wanted to learn to fly so he could be in it," said a daughter, Paula Gately Tillman-Hoffberger of Baltimore.

Six weeks after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Forces and was sent to Maxwell Field in Alabama, where he received flight instruction in an open-cockpit Stearman PT017 radial-engine biplane.

"I wore the old goggles and canvas helmet," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1995 interview. "I had never been in an airplane before I took my first flight with an instructor."

Colonel Tillman received his wings in December 1942 in what has been called "the Pearl Harbor Anniversary Class."

He was 20 when he began flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. He named one of them "Sweet Adeline" after his German grandmother.

He was promoted to captain when he was 21. As a member of the 8th Air Force in England, he had flown 52 combat missions over Europe by the time he celebrated his 22nd birthday. He was promoted to major 41 days after celebrating his 23rd birthday.

In July 1943, he was Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's wingman on the famous daylight raid on Rome, the first on the Italian capital, when 500 medium and heavy bombers attacked the city and surrounding railroad yards.

Colonel Tillman earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart after the Sept. 8, 1943, bombing of German high-command headquarters in Frascati, Italy.

On the way back to its base in North Africa, Colonel Tillman's squadron encountered 50 German fighter planes, and his plane downed one of the enemy aircraft.

"My plane was shot up pretty bad, one engine out," he said in the 1995 interview. "I was in deep trouble. Then I got a direct burst on the cockpit, and that's how I got my leg all messed up. Two big pieces of shrapnel: One stayed in my leg, one went completely through it."

Still, Colonel Tillman remained at the controls of his plane, safely landing it at his base in Tunisia, where he was treated for his wounds.

"Nine days after I was wounded, I was back flying a mission," he said.

According to a 1943 Sun article, he wrote in a letter to his parents that the "whole cockpit seemed to come up and hit me in the face."

He flew 10 more missions before returning to Baltimore in 1944. He was then sent to Texas as a flight instructor.

When World War II ended, Colonel Tillman decided to remain in the Air Force. During the Korean War, he ferried planes to South Korea.

Trained as a jet pilot, he was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Tan Son Nhut airfield, where he was vice commander.